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Integrating Level-appropriate online information in different levels of economics courses

 

November 18-19, 2011
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan Puerto Rico

Xu Zhang, Farmingdale State College

1. Introduction

The emergence of the Internet has not only made a profound impact on the world of communication, but also revolutionized the world of teaching and learning. Information and communication technology is embedded in the lives of today’s college students. Students frequently surf the Internet, send text messages via mobile phones, and chat through online instant messaging tools. During their college years, more and more students recognize and expect the convenience and excitement that the Internet brings. Students interact with instructors and fellow classmates through emails and online discussion platforms; they are impressed by that fact that they can find much useful information on the Web for research assignments, self-study, or simply for fun.

Web-based materials available to students come in a range of the electronic forms—primary texts, videos, animation, multimedia-enhanced information, etc. The Web provides immediate access to interactive resources. Moreover, with the aid of search engines, the Web permits creation of a resource list which contains all relevant information simply by a few clicks and typing. The Internet makes “blended teaching” (integrating online materials in traditional face-to-face teaching environment) possible, allowing for more time to interact with students and more dynamic illustration in class. High-tech instructional techniques enrich traditional the “chalk and talk” teaching style; examples of these include showing online videos, data, or even an online news channel. In general, the Web creates the opportunity to access more information at relatively lower time cost, which gives it a distinct advantage over traditional documents.

However, with the information explosion during the era of the Internet, the credibility of the abundance of online information becomes a major concern. In contrast to traditional print references, where the editors or the publishers conduct an initial screening for the quality of contents, information found on the internet does not undergo quality control. Indeed, as more and more Internet users get access to the Web and freely post information, some Web-based materials are not trustworthy, which creates obstacles for both teaching and learning. For example, I notice many students cite information from Wikipedia, a user-editable Web page which allows anyone with or without a credential in the field of content to edit it. Unless students are taught how to evaluate online information critically, the effectiveness of their learning will be weakened as they “blindly” take online information. The credibility of online information is closely related to the credentials and reputation of the author. An anonymous post on the Web makes it very difficult to evaluate how trustworthy the content is.

Another concern of using online information is appropriateness. Traditionally, a student working on a research topic would look into the resources in the library. Now, a good range of Web-based resources are present in the order determined by the search engine. Without carefully examining the search results, a research project may be the result of “power browsing” and simply “cutting and pasting.” Another issue is whether information on the Web is up to date. Checking the date of publishing on the Web becomes critical in assessing the relevance of the information. Theories in economics are rapidly evolving, thus, understanding the date or source of information will lead to better comprehension of the subject matter. Overall, it remains a challenge to both instructors and students to have the skills to identify and assess the Web-based information most relevant and appropriate to academic activities.

The following sections of this paper will address a few criteria in the evaluation of online information and the strategies I use in teaching economics and training students.

2. The Criteria in the Appraisal of Web-based Resources

With more and more publishers both in print and online, the criteria for checking the quality of traditional references can also be applied in the appraisal of Web-based resources. For example, a basic evaluation can focus on the credential of the author and the affiliated institution along with whether the information is published in a peer-review, scholarly journal. A good place to get a list of scholarly journals in the field is in the university library’s electronic database. A further evaluation will be based on the contents of the information. Some questions to ask are: Is the article well-researched and does it include a thorough literature review, empirical analysis and careful interpretation of the results? Is the content of the information is relevant? Is the main conclusion well-supported by facts, data or majority views in the main stream? If these items are missing or lacking, a further screening is needed. Students need to learn the skills to appraise Web-based resources and it takes time.

3. Strategies to Integrating Online Information in Teaching Introductory Economics Courses

I have been incorporating high-technology instructional techniques and the Internet in my economics courses (Principles of Macroeconomics, Principles of Microeconomics, Intermediate Macroeconomics and Labor Economics and Labor Relations) for several years. The aims in integrating Web-based resources in my teaching were: 1) to supplement traditional classroom teaching with advanced multimedia presentations; 2) to help students engage in a more effective and exciting learning process; 3) to make course management easier and increase transparency of class policies; 4) to make selected course materials more accessible to accommodate different students’ needs.

Students taking introductory level economics courses are usually freshmen and sophomores who come from various academic backgrounds. Before students take their first economics course, they have very limited knowledge about economics literature and may not be academically ready to evaluate the credibility of online information in economics. This prevents them from differentiating between accurate information and unreliable materials with inaccurate or incomplete information. It becomes the responsibility of an economics instructor to guide and train students to select high quality articles and data to enhance their academic journey in economics. Below are a few strategies I employ in training students to get the basic skills to assess Web-based materials in face-to-face introductory economics courses.

3.1 Hands-on Instructions

Because of students’ relative lack of knowledge concerning online economics resources, I being each semester with a brief introduction session on evaluating web-based resources in economics. In this session, I demonstrate that there is no guarantee of quality information and educational appropriateness in the results of a Google search. Students will have vivid experiences regarding what can happen when they search indiscriminately for economics terms. For example, a Google search on the term “recession” results in the following list of definitions:

Obviously, the definition of “recession” varies across sources of information online. Students may be misled by randomly reporting one of the search results. One of the tasks of the introduction session is to direct students to certain reliable Web sites look up economics related news and data. Students are also required to report the date, title, and source of articles when they share the economic news in class.

3.2 Introduction of Selected Economics Search Engines

One advantage of the Web is it can produce relevant resource lists within seconds through online aids such as search engines and online library databases. Specialized economics search engines often result in more efficient searches and may be superior to general search engines. Below are a few economics-related Web sites I usually introduce to my students:

  • MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) (http://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm) is a Web site useful to both instructors and students and includes lesson plans, tutorials and other multimedia materials.
  • The Economics Network Links Database (http://www.economicsnetwork.ac.uk/links/data_free) is a UK-based Web site for higher education in economics which provide both learning and teaching materials along with free international data in economics.
  • The Economist magazine (http://www.economist.com) provides high quality articles for current economic issues across the world.
  • The Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/home-page) is a good source of information for daily economic events in the United States and the rest of the world.

3.3 Designating Source of Information for Research Assignments

Occasionally, students in an introductory level economics courses will be assigned a simple research project, for example, to find out the consumer price index for the United States in the last 10 years. I designate the source of data Web site as the Bureau of Labor Statistics to get students exposed to one of the important research resources in economics.

3.4 Present up-to-date Research Finding in Economics

There are two goals inherent in showing the most recent research findings to students who are just beginning their study of economics: One is to familiarize students with the names of well-known economists and research organizations and broaden their knowledge of economics; the second is to encourage critical thinking by highlighting the major findings of economic research.

4. Strategies to Integrating Online Information in Teaching Upper Level Economics Courses

Students taking upper level economics elective courses usually need to finish a research report to fulfill the course requirement. They have accumulated enough perception on reliable sources of information in economics, but it still remains a challenge for students to enhance their research ability in depth and breath. For example, students in my course of labor economics are required to give a presentation on a labor market of interest to them. The presentation is based upon a research report regarding characteristics of the labor market of a country or an area. They also need to select a specific industry in the country or area they have chosen and analyze the trend and features of the industry by conducting simple data analysis and careful interpretation. At the beginning of the semester, students need to identify the target labor market and build up a folder to collect relevant resources as potential references. Students are then required to provide the following types of resources for the annotated bibliography:

  1. Two peer-review journal articles through looking up the databases such as EconLit and JStor;
  2. Citing economic glossaries from the textbook we are using, for example, unemployment rate, labor market participation rate, etc;
  3. One report from a government or NGO;
  4. One Web site or database for original sources of data;
  5. Two newspaper/magazine articles

In addition, students must explain whether they support or disagree with the main conclusion of the two scholarly journal articles; how they are going to use the data to support their arguments; the relevance of the newspaper/magazine articles; and how government reports fit into the analysis. By doing so, each student’s ability to refine online information related with economics is largely strengthened. They become more confident in comparing the advantages and disadvantages of various references.

5. Conclusion

“Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” (Mitchell Kapor). It is even more challenging for college students in economics to refine online information for academic purposes. For students in the introductory level of economics courses, instructors should give hands-on demonstrations to arm them with the basic skills to distinguish trustworthy and academic appropriate Web-resources from questionable and irrelevant online information. Instructors can also specify sources of information to solicit quality references. In upper level economics courses, students are relatively more experienced. The goal of integrating online information in teaching and students’ learning processes is to improve their research abilities by providing a step-by-step research agenda.

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